That won’t be the slogan on the yard signs when Mayor Ed Murray’s new partially Universal Preschool proposal goes to the ballot in Seattle this November, but it should be. The kids who’ll benefit most from Murray’s proposal haven’t even been conceived yet, let alone born.
The project’s long-term goal is to serve 80 percent of all families under 300 percent of the federal poverty level (about a third of all Seattle children) by 2035 — 21 years from now. Your baby daughter won’t benefit from the program, but there’s better than a one-in-three chance her daughter might.
That’s both absurd and disingenuous, in the passive-aggressive way Seattle politicians love. If the City Council approves the proposal as is, voters will choose whether to approve a $58 million property tax levy for the next four years — $14.5 million a year, a tax increase of $43 per year for the average Seattle homeowner.
That $58 million would fund a four-year demonstration project enrolling 2,000 3- and 4-year-olds in 100 classrooms by 2018 — about one in 10 Seattle kids in that age range. Enrollment would be open to all 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds from families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), which is currently $71,000 for a family of four.
Tuition would be free for families below 200 percent of FPL and charged on a sliding scale otherwise. Families at up to 600 percent of FPL ($143,000 in annual household income) would pay no more than 40 percent of the projected cost of $10,700 per student per year, a maximum of $5,700 a year per child.
Presumably, the city would go back to voters in 2018 for another levy to continue and hopefully expand the program, and so it would incrementally grow from 10 percent of eligible children in 2018 to 80 percent by 2035.
Very long-range planning
This is a program that could make a huge difference for many, many kids. All of the modern education data shows an enormous difference in school performance and in success later in life for kids educated in school settings before kindergarten — that simply isn’t debatable.
And any parent who’s priced the cost of preschool knows that even for a middle-class family, this would be a serious bargain.
(Yes, $143,000 for a working couple in Seattle is no better than upper-middle class, and as Seattle gentrifies and the working poor get squeezed out, that’ll be median-income territory in the not-too-distant future.)
Right now, sending your child to preschool is hugely expensive: $5,700 a year is difficult to find for any program, and the higher-end ones are all in five digits, with hugely competitive enrollments — for 3-year-olds.
So, for the children this helps, it’s all well and good. But this is even less of a true “universal preschool” proposal than Murray’s other recent big-ticket item is genuinely a $15-per-hour minimum wage.
Both programs have preposterously long timelines; some workers wouldn’t reach $15 an hour (in 2018 dollars, not 2014 dollars, so it’s really more $14 per hour) for 11 years. So the working poor may need to wait more than a decade to reach a wage that most middle-class people still couldn’t live on.
But the good news is that their kids will almost certainly still be in poverty when their grandkids reach preschool age in 2035. At that point, if this program is successful and voters keep approving it, four out of five of them will actually be enrolled in a subsidized early learning program.
The rhetoric come fall will surely invoke “investing in the future,” but for many Seattle families, it’s a small investment in a ridiculously distant future, one in which they can take heart in a better chance of success when their grandkids reach graduate school or enter the workforce in 2055 — assuming our planet hasn’t already become a barren desert and all.
The money is there
All political projects are compromises between the available funding and the prioritization of all the different needs that funding could support. Our antiquated tax structures, the additional revenue limits from two decades of Eyman initiatives and the vagarities of voters all limit the possibilities.
But Seattle is a wealthy city, and $58 million is somewhere around one-100th of the minimum we’ll spend on just one local developer-friendly project alone (the downtown tunnel).
As with the minimum-wage initiative, transit funding and all the other issues where the impacts of chronic under-funding over the years are boiling over this year, we have enough money in Seattle. It’s a matter of priorities and of whom the city most wants to help.
This isn’t enough for the people who need it most. In each of these projects, the City Council can and should be much, much more ambitious.
GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com